A Discussion with Doreen Ruto, Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development
April 14, 2015
Background: This interview with Doreen Ruto Jemutai, held in Nairobi with Crystal Corman in April 2015, is published posthumously. The discussion highlights Doreen’s response to trauma in her own life by seeking out more information about what causes people to act violently. Through her own healing, she built skills and an organization, the Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development (DiPaD), to foster resilience before a crisis and respond to the needs of individuals and communities following traumatic events. In this interview she explains the founding of DiPaD in Kenya, its various projects, and her learning along the journey.
What is the story behind the founding of Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development?
I started Daima Initatives for Peace and Development for a number of reasons. One dates back to the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi; I think that Kenya had not experienced the effects of terrorism until then. During that time, I had no connection whatsoever with peacebuilding and conflict or global issues and development. I was working for the government. During the bombing, the building where I worked was hit because it was next to the U.S. embassy. I also lost my spouse in the embassy bombing.
My motivation was first and foremost my personal experience. It has taken me a long time to rebuild myself again and to recover from the effects of the terrorist bombing. Reflecting on the general rebuilding of my life and my children, and dealing with the effects of trauma, that was the first time I was introduced to peacebuilding and violence prevention. And that began a journey for me to find out what causes violence and how we can prevent it. I became very curious to find out what happens when people go into conflict and use violence to resolve conflict. That’s how I ended up at Eastern Mennonite University, where I earned a degree in conflict transformation. My focus was mainly on trauma recovery and building the resilience of communities.
As a result of the education I got, I realized I had changed as a person. I was no longer so angry, I wasn’t feeling so vengeful. I had, in a way, found a new way of looking at violence. I also felt like other people needed to understand what happens when survivors of traumatic events are not able to find healing. We need to find better ways to assist survivors to find healing in a way that ensures that they don’t feel vengeful, angry, or bitter.
After my studies, I came back to Kenya. One of the main aims of establishing our organization was to find out the intersection of trauma, cycles of violence, peacebuilding, and development. There is a kind of connection between violence, trauma caused by violence, and unhealed trauma that can lead to more conflict and destruction. It just takes two unhappy individuals who have a traumatic past and they can bring all that development crashing down. Look at what happened in 9/11! Whether you build hospitals, roads, schools, or infrastructure, it can be destroyed by a few individuals who haven’t been able to deal with their past or are responding to violence differently.
The main aim of our organization was to create a link and to make it very clear that any time violence has happened, it needs to be addressed. It should not be ignored. That was what we are developing; we should also develop alongside issues that cause violence, like structural violence, historical injustices, religious issues, and also have a dialogue around issues of pain and unresolved conflicts that end up coming back to cause destruction.
In your own experience, could you find access to trauma healing? Or were you looking for it?
As part of the initial response, survivors of the embassy bombing were provided access to trauma healing, but that was not adequate. It was very inadequate, in the sense that therapy sessions were very limited and timed, and you cannot time healing. People heal at different timeframes. Organizations dealing with emergency response normally only offer trauma recovery for a very short time, like three months. But victims could be living with a lifetime’s worth of wounds, and so the trauma healing needs to be ongoing. Most development and trauma healing programs have not been able to incorporate that. The therapy sessions I was provided were not enough, so that’s why I sought more information about how to assist survivors to recover from the long-term effects of trauma.
Is part of your job then to raise awareness about trauma healing in Kenya? Or do you react to specific situations and take skills there?
We’ve tried both. Even before terrorism happened, we were trying to reach out to the Kenya defense forces to work with them. We’ve worked on the pre-deployment of soldiers (during their training) to say, "This is what you’ll experience. When you come back, this will be how you’ll experience post-traumatic stress disorders." Things like that. However, in Kenya, where we have experienced a series of terrorist attacks in the recent past, we are also using it as a reactive strategy. After it happens, we reach out to the students or the survivors to provide strategies for self-care.
Can I ask you to explain a little bit about the sources of that trauma?
From the definition of trauma, people will say it’s when we experience overwhelming events or our ability to respond is overwhelmed. Research and various therapies and psychologies have also found that at the domestic level, children who are experiencing domestic violence live with trauma and might carry it on to their relationships later in life.
There was an incident where a child grew up in a family where they lost their older brother to an accident; it was very sudden. After the burial the parents never talked about what happened, so the children grew up never knowing what happened to their brother. Of course, when they are very young, children might not have the language to express themselves, and their parents might not have the strategies to assist their children in recovering. But as they grow up, there is a vacuum. One of our survivors said that, “I knew something was wrong with me, something was wrong in our family, but nobody ever talked about our brother; it was a hush-hush topic.” But when we went through the sessions, he said, “Now I see a difference. We should have actually dealt with it as a family, and talked about it and processed the emotions and the pain that all of us were facing, so that it doesn’t come back to hound us.”
At the family level there are various ways that people experience trauma, like through a suppressed, hush-hush grieving process. When you talk about areas like historical traumas for communities, this is on a collective level. Something happened in the community, maybe some members of the community were killed, maybe as a result of some sort of conflict that was politically instigated, and nobody talked about it. People were forced to move on and live their lives. And they move on to live their lives, because life has to go on, but those wounds are never addressed.
Is that something you think is happening in Kenya?
Yes; it is happening everywhere. We have a lot of historical traumas that have not been dealt with. Communities move on, but the pain remains. Whether it’s a group of people who were massacred, like the Wagalla massacre, or the tribal clashes in Kenya. After we resettle people or buy them land, we just assume that everything is now ok. The focus is on the physical healing rather than the psychological and emotional healing. Those wounds still simmer in communities, and they re-emerge later. Those are some of the aspects where we see this trauma everywhere. If pain was there in the past or it is there right now, it needs to be dealt with, whether it is historical or domestic.
What are some of the programs that DiPaD has been doing?
One of the key programs is a learning community of practitioners and professionals in Kenya, who, in one way or another, are working on issues of crime or violence and justice. To begin, we say that there are alternatives to violence and crime that can create a healing process for all involved. When we say all involved, we are talking about the victims and the offenders. We use a restorative justice approach to crime, punishment, and justice. We ask, “Even as we find healing for victims, what does justice mean to many people?” We worked with law enforcement, including the police, prosecutors, judges, and magistrates, to give them a different perspective of how to approach violence and to prevent violence using trauma healing approaches, or just being trauma-sensitive during their proceedings.
We also reached out to the survivors of the Westgate bombing. We trained the victims who survived. We trained the caregivers, like their pastors, parents, and schoolteachers, to raise their awareness about what the people they care for might be going through. We equip them with extra skills and tools to assist survivors to deal with the impacts of trauma.
We’ve also worked in schools with kids and schoolteachers to introduce peace education programs. This includes raising awareness of how children can recover from all this violence and how we can minimize the effects of violence on children, even through media and the conversations that parents have at home.
We don’t just focus on trauma; we also focus on women’s leadership programs. We were hoping to do political empowerment programs for women who are aspiring to be political leaders to offer them some strategies on how to survive in a highly competitive male domain.
Do you also work with some women’s issues in peacebuilding?
Yes. Part of that is gender-based violence. We came to recognize that sometimes women could become leaders, but they themselves experience violence in their own homes, and they are not able to deal with it. You find a woman leader who’s at the top in her work, but back home she’s experiencing gender-based violence. How does she deal with it? How does she create a support group with other women who are also in leadership to be able to deal with such issues without feeling like she will look weak in front of other women?
There is a Women Peacebuilding Leadership Program, funded by USAID, partnering with Eastern Mennonite University, but DiPaD was also coordinating at the local level to identify the women leaders in peacebuilding to be able to confront some of these issues on gender-based violence. How does a woman leader deal with those contradictions of being a housewife and at the same time being a woman leader in the community? We’re also looking at that.
Why did you want to focus on women and gender and how does that fit in with your vision and mission for the organization?
Before I started DiPaD, I worked in various communities in South Sudan, Rwanda, the Congo, and Somalia. But I did those programs on a consultancy basis. And when doing those programs, I found out something. As much as people say that women had a key role to play in building communities after violence, I discovered one thing. Women survive conflict better than the men, even in emotional and psychological terms. Women are able to bounce back much more easily than men from the effects of trauma. When women experience violence, they are able to still carry on their gender roles—feed the family, protect their children, and wash their children—even in the midst of violence. They usually heal fine. But most men get disempowered by conflict to the extent that, in most post-conflict countries, you find more idle men than women. The women keep themselves busy; they involve themselves to survive, to keep the family running, fetching water, and going places.
Does religion come into your work, either as a motivating factor or in your programming?
Yes. We identify it as one of the issues or causes [of violence] that we should pay attention to. Religion often comes into work on terrorism. In some of the programs, we have had to look at bringing in a group of Muslims and Christians, especially to address the effects of terrorism. In Kenya right now there is a lot of anger and emotion coming especially from Christians. They say, "You can no longer be passive; you can no longer sit back and just watch other Christians being killed." During the training sessions, we focus a lot on how religion can not only be a tool to resolve conflict, but also can be a cause of conflict.
We focus a lot on spirituality in our trauma healing sessions. We don’t focus on a particular religion; we just say that it’s very important that survivors identify a meaningful way to deal with the effects of trauma by engaging in a spiritual practice, whether it’s from your faith background, Hinduism, meditation, yoga, Muslim chants or prayers, or Christians singing. We encourage survivors to use their various traditional practices as a resource for building resilience. We use religion as a resource for building resilience.
What do you mean by the term ‘resilience’ and the way that you use it?
It's become a more common term recently. Some people from the development world define it differently, I think, from the peacebuilding field. It’s seen by some as the capacity for communities to meet their basic needs and have access to basic needs, whether it’s education or roads or food and shelter. But, in terms of the peacebuilding approach, I view it as the ability for people to thrive in the midst of adversity, so that even without the daily provisions for sustenance, people are able to draw from their own inner strength—but also from their association in terms of social networks—the ability to be strong and identify their own ways of overcoming daily challenges.
We assist them to know their inner resources, but also how you can build on those resources through daily practice, routine practice, or through interaction with others. So we help them identify what they have but also add on; we make them aware that you have to practice to be able to bounce back in the face of adversity, or face your challenges when you experience adversity.
Are you planning to or are you involved in responding to the recent attack at Garissa University?
It caught everyone off guard, and I was planning on taking some time off from trauma work. After we did the response to Westgate, we walked through the effects with a lot of survivors and the Kenya security forces. The whole of last year and the year before we had sessions on a monthly basis and eventually it took a toll on me. I didn’t want to hear any more stories of terrorism. That was until Garissa happened.
Immediately when it happened I received a call from one of our survivors, who we had trained, and she said, “Kindly come on the radio and tell us how we can respond to this.” They put me on a Catholic radio station for one hour every Friday for one month to share some of the strategies for responding to trauma; I used an education approach, just to educate people. I told them, “If you feel these symptoms—if you’re feeling angry or vengeful, it’s because you’ve experienced a very traumatic event. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal event.” I did this for five weeks on radio.
Also, as an organization, we’re in the process of reaching out to student leaders and taking them through a process of how the students who were directly affected might respond when the university reopens, and they go back and have to confront their Muslim colleagues, who maybe said the Muslim prayer and walked out while their colleagues died. I’m looking at a way where we can have dialogues with both Muslim and Christian students before the university reopens to diffuse those tensions and offer some basic trauma healing strategies.
Have you ever had any resistance to your work?
Most of the resistance is out of not knowing or understanding what we do. Basically, many donors do not understand the concept of trauma or psychosocial support. It is regarded as a very Western therapeutic model, and many communities initially rejected it, saying “No, we don’t do this in Africa.” When you first talk about trauma work, they say, “No, that does not apply to us.” But you say, “Give me time; let me tell you what it is.” And eventually, we are able to say, “All human beings, whether white or black, respond the same way to traumatic events, in one way or another.” We also draw on their own traditional practices, whether it’s in grieving or mourning. We validate those processes. And they are able to appreciate it. But initially there is a lot of resistance.
Could you talk about the intersection between religion and peacebuilding in Kenya and what some of the main issues are?
I’m really trying to wrap my head about radicalization. I want to find out whether it’s really religion being used to radicalize, or if it is just about social systems—like family and education and governance structures—that can lead to radicalization and religion is just used as a tool.
In our context here in Kenya, peacebuilders are really grappling with radicalization and how to address it. I think we need to address it from a religious, governmental, and societal point of view. When you solve the issue of religion, there are still a lot of youth who are unemployed. And then there’s corruption, where you’re finding even youth getting upset or unhappy with the way governance and corruption are being handled. So they might say, “When we grow up, we might never have a country because everything is being looted. So, what’s the use?” Even just that loss of hope for anyone can lead to radicalization, I think. But religion usually provides people with hope or with a tool to find meaning.
How do you evaluate the effectiveness of your work?
One of the weaknesses we had in convincing donors that this work has an impact is showing that someone has been healed. How do you do that? It’s hard to measure, but it’s important to ask.
We normally do several things for monitoring and evaluation. One, we do what you call initial surveys of the groups we work with to gauge their perception about each other or their perception about violence, including perceptions about traumatic experiences that they’ve had. Then we also do a post-project evaluation to link it to the baseline survey that we did. It’s very qualitative in nature because we do a lot of storytelling; we listen to the stories participants tell as they come in, but also gauge their level of learning, their level of changed perceptions, and their level of understanding. We even ask them, “What are you going to do differently?” They might say, “I think from today onwards, this is what I’ll do when I experience a trigger event, or when I hear a loud bang.”
On a long-term basis, we’ve created a learning community with learning pairs. We bring groups of people who are in close proximity to each other—maybe they are in the same organization, or from the same congregation, or the same school, or the same community—and we create partnerships with them to work together. We pair them up, just to keep tabs on each other and then provide feedback to us, either through email or social media, to tell us some of the things they see happening differently, or how they see themselves in the next six months or one year. People give us their personal journeys, saying, “From the time I received training, this has changed for me.” Or, “From the time I received training, this is what I do differently.” This is one way to give us an assessment of where they are from the beginning.
Sometimes we use documentaries where people agree to do a kind of body language evaluation, including how are they sitting and who are they talking to. Toward the end of the program, we observe how at ease they are with each other and who they are now talking to, because you’ll find that the ones who are very quiet at the beginning end up very talkative by the end. Those are some of the ways in which we evaluate. We also do personal interviews to ask, “What does this mean for you?” and “What do you think has happened?” Usually you are able to gauge the effect on different people based on their stories.